The Joy of Jasperware
By Robert Reed
Jasperware is perhaps the most celebrated accomplishment of legendary English potter Josiah Wedgwood. A finely-grained stoneware developed in the 1770s, it remains today perhaps one of the most distinctive and distinguished ceramic wares ever to be created. Basically, this “wonder ware” was simply an unglazed white bisque which could ultimately be colored and decorated with raised images on the surface.
Most experts agree that Wedgwood finally perfected jasperware around 1777 after years and years of experimentation. Essentially, it involved combining clay with a barium sulphate for a slightly translucent effect which readily adapted to the stain of various colors.
The experts do not entirely agree, however, on the origin of the basic clay. Some researchers suggest that much of the clay actually came from America where it was dug from the river beds of Cherokee Indian country. At some point, Wedgwood insisted that all of the clay had been imported from the backlands of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Confirming in writing that the “…Cherokee earth....is really used in all jaspers.”
However, author Peter Williams who penned the comprehensive Wedgwood: A Collector’s Guide, is of a different opinion. Williams noted that while jasperware was fully promoted at the time as being fully made of Cherokee clay, Wedgwood may have later conceded only a portion of such clay was actually used in jasperware production.
At any rate, the result was stunning stoneware that could eventually be easily tinted. Moreover, the ware could then be decorated with bas-relief work of contrasting colors for a most dramatic overall look.
One writer described the unique ware as “almost velvety to the touch,” yet thin enough to allow the flow of light.
Using metallic oxides, the ware could be stained in various degrees of blue, green and certain lilac shades. Later, there would be a few more color options available, including a bit more cobalt for a deeper blue and a combination of iron and cobalt for a remarkable green. Additionally, there was the use of manganese for a charming lilac color and basic iron for an effective but rarely-used yellow. In the long run, however, the fundamental light blue on white endured as a tradition.
The stained jasper, whether blue or some variation, could then be applied to the background of the original white base. Typically, the applied pieces represented classical images of Greco-Roman figures, which were highly stylish and marketable at the time. The figures were made separately from the base ware in specially constructed molds. The applied pieces were then fixed into place before the firing of the overall ware.
In the beginning, jasperware was relatively small, and therefore, it provided a limited surface for the applied pieces. However, Wedgwood was eventually able to improve techniques to the point where larger objects, from bowls to full-sized rectangular plaques, could be created.
“And how beautifully this jasperware harmonized with the urn-shaped and delicate lines of the (Thomas) Sheraton furniture then in the height of fashion,” noted Esther Singleton in the early 20th Century volume, The Collecting of Antiques.
Some years after Wedgwood’s initial development of the use of metallic oxides, the creative potter turned to a less expensive dipping process. This technique, apparently never patented, involved simply submerging the basic ware in a colored solution. Generally, the process required much less color pigment and provided a thin coating of coloring on the finished ware.
Accounts vary as to how long the Wedgwood Company continued to use the so-called dipping process for jasperware. Most sources agree that by the 1850s the dipping had been abandoned in favor of using solid coloring on base pieces. Primary among them was the solid blue body. As it was during the later days of the 18th Century, blue and white continued to be the most popular jasper color combination of the 19th Century, too.
From cameos, small medallions and ornaments, the jasperware operation was steadily expanded and enlarged to include candlesticks, vases, plaques, urns and various other table dishes. There were full sets as well, as Wedgwood production continued to prosper in the middle of the 19th Century. There was a five-piece green jasperware tea set, for example. It included a covered teapot, cream jug, covered sugar bowl, hot water pot with cover, and a coffee can and saucer. The pieces included striking arabesque or intricate inlaid figural and geometrical designs with floral and foliate bands as well.
Even more elaborate in the latter 1800s was the so-called coffee can and saucer in a striking three-colors of jasperware. The solid white jasper base was decorated with lilac medallions, to be followed by small flowers and berries in shades of green foliage.
At its height, the variations and varieties of jasperware were immense. Added decorations ranged from acanthus leaves to fruiting grapevines. The selection of jasper ware objects expanded to include incense burners, oil lamps, torch vases, fireplace-size plaques, custard cups and even chess sets.
Still critics suggest the older jasperware may have been the better of its type, usually.
This delicate stoneware has been popular ever since it was first made, according to the New York Times Book of Antiques. However, late 19th Century examples “…are often well made, but some lack the precise detailing characteristics of the best work.”
Wedgwood author Williams tends to agree. “A mainstream production of traditional classical-style jasper has been adhered to over the centuries, but expanding demands and increased production costs led to reductions in quality.”
Still when it comes to renowned jasperware, the true qualities pieces standout through the centuries.
“The points which mark jasperware excellence in the eyes of the collector are the smoothness and color of the background,” wrote antiques historian Harold Bond decades ago, “the sharpness and translucency of the ornament and the under-cutting in which certain parts are relieved by cutting while the clay is soft.”
Today, finer pieces of classic jasperware in all its styles and types can command significant prices in auction houses, shows and shops.
Recommended reading: Wedgwood, A Collector’s Guide by Peter Williams (Wallace-Homestead).
teapot with classical frieze band and acanthus ring decorated lid; incised, “Wedgwood England”;
4 x 7 ¾ x 5 inches.
(Photo, Dargate Auction Galleries)
Dark blue Wedgwood jasperware footed bowl. (Photo, Atlanta Antique Gallery)
Wedgwood jasperware "Muses" jardinière, or cache pot, with classical figures, lion ring ornaments with grapevine swags; incised, “Wedgwood Made in England B 6.” Size: 6 ¼ x 4 ¼, 5 3/8 inches. (Photo, Dargate.)
Jasperware bowl with frieze of 12 Grecian maidens; marked, “Jasper Ware Made in England since 1800 Dudson Handley”; 2 ¼ x 4 ¼ inches. (Photo, Dargate.)
Pitcher with geometric flower bands; marked, “Wedgwood England,” 9 ¼ x 7 x 4 1/8 inches. (Photo, Dargate.)